My Uncle Tone…

It had been 56 years since my Uncle Tony, Tone to his parents, bought his three-bedroomed house in Littlehampton.

He had been a single man of 31, around the age of my children now, and I remember thinking,

‘Why buy a three bedroom house just for one person?’

I was still a youngster and thought only families with children bought large houses.

His response was,

“A larger house on a safe housing estate will be more attractive to a young family when I decide to sell.”

Of course; I hadn’t thought about buying a house with an eye to selling it.

Come to think of it the thought of buying a house hadn’t occurred to me at all at the tender age of twelve!

My uncle held a special place in my heart, he seemed young, probably 20 years older than me, handsome, tall and slender with thick, dark hair slicked back like my father’s.

He fashionably sported a moustache and glasses,

and cut a very dashing figure in my young eyes.

My earliest memories of him date back to when I was three.  My brother and I had been packed off to High Wycombe, from Germany where my parents were stationed, while Mummy had an operation.  We stayed with my grandparents for 3 months.  I slept in my uncle’s bedroom which was festooned with his model aeroplanes suspended from the ceiling with fishing line.

At night I’d look up at them as the light slowly faded and thought the displays were the most magical thing I’d ever seen.

If I was there when he came home to visit I’d have to move from his room to the spare for the weekend.

At mealtimes I’d vie with my brother for the seat next to him at the table. There, after wolfing down my meal, I’d watch him eat his, slowly, carefully, thoughtfully, totally oblivious to my scrutiny.  I’d admire his meticulously clean, white shirts, the starched cuffs held together with a pair of cufflinks riding, ever so slightly, up his wrists to reveal a gold watch.

As I got older my attention was drawn to his hands, he had long, slender fingers enhanced by a signet ring,

“Artistic hands,” my mother would say.  I’d look at my square hands,

“Yours are practical, like your father’s.” I’d sigh and wonder if one day a ring would help!

To me everything about him bore the mark of elegance!

Shown here with his mother, my grandmother, when he was sixteen by the sea in Bournemouth.  Note the trousers and shoes and open necked shirt.

A casual sea-side look, still with a touch of the debonair!

When he spoke his voice was soft and gentle and he would encourage me to prattle on at him quite unselfconsciously.

I never minded that he rarely spoke a word not realizing, until many years later, that as long as I was talking ‘at’ him he didn’t have to suffer the uncomfortable silences that inevitably fell on the house when he came home.

His parents, or come to think of it, most adults who encountered him,  seemed incapable of talking with this handsome young man.  I seemed to have mastered the art of doing the talking for both of us.

After a few hours with him my mother would say in the car on the way home,

“That was exhausting!”

But he seemed to like her and I don’t think he ever felt uncomfortable around his brother, my father, who’s voice was just as soft and gentle as his that no-one could ever interject because they couldn’t hear a word that was being spoken.

I didn’t know he was shy until later and I was quite at home with this silent man who became the perfect sounding board for all my joys and woes throughout my life.  I never stopped talking his ear off whenever we met or simply caught up on the phone.

When I was about five I vaguely remember him drawing silly cartoon-like figures of a scruffy little dog to amuse me.  He’d sometimes add captions, which he taught me to read and I thought he was so very talented!

I found the sketch book when I was clearing out his house!  I could hardly believe he’d kept it.

They were signed,

and dated 1954-59.  I was very young.

Along with the sketch book I discovered some watercolours of pastoral scenes and local churches also bearing his trademark initials, AJB.

I brought them home with me and they are now framed and hanging at Footlights.

Because he was a man of few words his parents kept quiet when he was around.  They had no idea what he did for a living.  They knew he’d gone to college and graduated as a chartered engineer but any more than that remained unknown.

Wherever he went he was treated as a highly favoured guest which was to prevail for as long as I knew him;

none of us ever went to see him, he would come and see us and we’d faff around him like bees around a honey pot, making sure we had his favourite biscuits, plenty of strong cheddar cheese to put in his sandwiches and coffee just the way he liked it.

Always the visitor never the visited!

During my boarding school years he would occasionally come and get me for the weekend, save me having to find a series of busses that took long winding roads and many hours out of the coveted two day break from school.

He had the luxury of a car, the epitome of wealth to my young mind that no train or bus schedule could interrupt.

Sometimes, during the Easter holidays, which my brother and I would always spend with our grandparents, he would take us for a Sunday afternoon joy ride.  My most enduring memory was of him spinning his sleek little Jaguar; perhaps he hit a patch of ice or a scattering of wet leaves, but all of a sudden the sky was twirling around me and I was watching him grapple with the wheel to bring the car safely back under his control.

-I was later to learn that he had a bit of a reputation for being a bad driver –

Mesmerised by the ease with which he performed the task I had no fear for my safety. The incident left me thoroughly exhilarated and utterly besotted; he was my hero and in later years I loved hearing him claim me as his niece when we were out.

Every now and again

– if I was in Wycombe when he happened to be home –

after early morning Sunday mass I’d supervise my grandmother’s making of his breakfast-in-bed tray.  He took his coffee with a spoonful of condensed milk, she timed his eggs and bacon perfectly with the fried bread and mushrooms, two slices of toast neatly buttered and a jar of his favourite thin cut orange marmalade, set, by me, precisely next to his knife.

Royal treatment, rightly reserved for Tone!

She never brought me breakfast-in-bed!

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